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Thailand's Wily Prayuth Scrambles to Stay in Power
Discord among pro-democracy parties strengthens premier’s position
By: Pithaya Pookaman
With campaigning in full swing ahead of Thailand’s May 14 general election, poll numbers are unexpectedly surging for the youth-oriented Move Forward Party, the reconstituted successor to the Future Forward Party, which was ordered disbanded after the 2019 election by the courts after the military grew concerned over its popularity and potential.
Move Forward’s showing comes at the expense of the main opposition Pheu Thai Party and serves as a bonus for Premier Prayuth Chan-ocha, who despite his widespread unpopularity is fighting to keep his stranglehold on power indefinitely after deposing a democratically elected government by military coup in 2014. A wily survivor, Prayuth has persisted despite sabotage by competing military figures wanting the top job, including ter leaving the dominant military-backed Palang Pracharat Party earlier this year to establish his own Ruam Thai Sang Chat (RTSC) Party, which is hardly anything but a campaign vehicle.
Pheu Thai is headed by Paethongtarn Shinawatra, the youngest daughter of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the niece of his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, also a former premier. Both were deposed and exiled by military coups in 2006 and 2014 respectively. Pheu Thai or other parties guided from exile by Thaksin have won a majority of seats in the lower house in every election since 2001, only to be removed from power by military subterfuges.
The popularity of Move Forward’s leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, has eclipsed even that of Paethongtarn, one of Pheu Thai’s candidates for prime minister should the opposition drive the military-backed government from power. Move Forward’s base is among those 18 to 25 years of age who find the power elite to be archaic in this day and age, It has strong support from university student groups and associations. The party’s main campaign platform is built on repealing or amending the country’s lèse-majesté law, Article 112 of the Criminal Code, one of the world’s strictest, under which many people have been jailed for perceived slights against the monarchy, and for support for Thailand’s ratification of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which resonates among these groups.
However, as the party wants to woo other parties, both conservative and liberal, to form a coalition, it has switched its stance on lèse-majesté from repealing to amending, and finally to compromising by not using the law as a precondition to forge an alliance.
Pheu Thai has been clear from the outset about not amending the lèse-majesté law as a campaign policy, given common reverence for the monarchy, but is determined to win a landslide in order to unseat Prayuth and form a government, after which it would seek to amend the constitution to make it more democratic, which could also include amending the lèse-majesté law. Pheu Thai’s leaders believe that centering on amending the law now would only cause division among the pro-democracy parties and wreck its chances.
To form a government, the ipposition must first win up to 310 of the 500 House votes. Then it will need another 66 from pro-democracy parties and even some conservative parties to win a parliamentary majority of 376 votes out of 750 to form a government, after which it will attempt to proceed to amend the constitution, which was rewritten in 2017 to perpetuate the military in power, to make it more democratic which might also include amending the lèse-majesté law.
For Prayuth to continue for another term, he needs to win only 126 MPs in the House as he already has his hand-picked 250 senators in his pocket as a result of the 2017 constitution, which empowered the military to pick the upper house. But even if he gets a parliamentary nod to form a government, it is likely to only be a minority one which can be easily voted out in a no-confidence vote or in failing to pass the budget law.
Recognizing he faces such a predicament, Prayuth hopes to form a minority government first with the help of the senators and then to proceed to buy or coerce some opposition MPs or ‘political cobras’ to his side. If he succeeds, his next step is expected by critics to be to amend the constitution – not to make it more democratic, but to remove a limit on his eight-year tenure as well as perhaps extending the tenure to the senators beyond the current six years to serve as his vanguard.
In case neither Pheu Thai nor Prayuth’s RTSC can garner a parliamentary majority, Prayuth could still head a caretaker government until he can buy the loyalty of enough MPs to form a government. Hence, the onus is on Pheu Thai to wrest the lost votes back from Move Forward and win at least the 310 House MPs. The electoral gain for Move Forward is a loss for Pheu Thai, and not at the expense of the RTSC or Palang Pracharat Party headed by Prawit Wongsuwan, Prayuth’s now-estranged compatriot on the 2014 military coup, who seeks power himself.
Unfortunately, the Pheu Thai campaign has stalled in the face of an extensive negative campaign perpetrated by RTSC and its allies. Pheu Thai has been vilified as seeking a behind-the-scenes pact with Palang Pracharat and Prawit to form a Pheu Thai-led coalition government. Although such allegations have been categorically denied by Pheu Thai, the suspicion is still rife.
In addition, the conservative media, which is backed by the military and the entrenched Bangkok elites, and polling institutions want to sow discord between Pheu Thai and Move Forward by cranking up the latter’s poll numbers. The propaganda machine is thus hoping RTSC and its allies can reap the benefit of any rift, denying Pheu Thai from winning enough votes to overcome the obstacle of the rigged 2017 constitution.
It is noteworthy that the issue of lèse-majesté is having a strong impact on the forthcoming general election. Ultra-conservative parties such as RTSC and Palang Pracharat use it to win votes while it causes division among the progressive and pro-democracy parties. For the ultra-conservative parties, the election is publicized as simply to safeguard the country and its institutions rather than preserving democracy. For the pro-democracy parties, it is a matter of developing the country and improving the livelihood of the people.
Hence, Pheu Thai has come up with a policy of resuscitating the country’s economy through generous populist measures such as a digital wallet while Move Forward Party emphasizes reforming the country’s political structure to make it more democratic. The result of the forthcoming election will be pivotal to determine where the country is heading.
Pithaya Pookaman is a former Thai ambassador and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel